The Commanding Clovis I: King of the Merovingian Dynasty and Founder of France
Clovis I was the second king of the Merovingian Dynasty, and its first ruler to unite all the Franks in the region of Gaul under Merovingian rule. Due to this achievement, Clovis is often regarded as the founder of France. In addition to this unification, Clovis is also remembered for his conversion to Christianity. Like the Roman emperor Constantine, Clovis’ conversion was related to a battle, and paved the way for the adoption of Christianity (specifically Roman Catholicism, as opposed to Arianism) by the Franks.
Clovis I was born around 466 AD, and was the son of a chief by the name of Childeric. Clovis’ father was the leader of a Germanic tribe known as the Salian Franks, and served as an ally of Rome. When Childeric died, Clovis, who was 15 years old at that time, inherited his father’s position. Five years after inheriting his father’s throne, Clovis came into conflict with Syagrius, the last Roman governor of Gaul.
Syagrius was defeated by Clovis at the Battle of Soissons in 486 AD, and the governor fled to Toulouse, hoping to find refuge with the Visigothic king Alaric II. Clovis demanded that Syagrius be handed over to him, to which Alaric complied. Syagrius was brought back to Soissons, where he was beheaded.
The captured Syagrius is brought before Alaric II who orders him sent to Clovis I. (Public Domain)
Clovis continued his military campaign, conquering many important cities, including Paris, Rouen, and Reims by the end of the year. By 491 AD, much of western Gaul was under Clovis’ rule. By this time Clovis had ordered the assassination of several Frankish kings, and added their kingdoms to his. During the early 6th century AD, Clovis defeated the Visigoths in southern Gaul, and added much of what is today the region of Aquitaine to his kingdom. By the time of Clovis’ death in 511 AD all the Franks in Gaul were united under the Merovingians.
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Another important contribution of Clovis to history was his adoption of Roman Catholicism. Christianity had already taken root in Gaul prior to Clovis’ conversion, and Childeric, his father, is recorded to have been on good terms with the bishops of Gaul. This policy was continued by Clovis, and may be exemplified in a story recorded by Gregory of Tours.
In this story, Clovis and his soldiers are said to have looted many churches after defeating Syagrius in 486 AD. One of the looted items was “a vase of marvelous size and beauty”. The bishop, from whose church the vase was taken, sent a messenger to Clovis, begging for the restoration of this particular vase.
The king brought the messenger back to Soissons, where he had taken up residence. Once there, Clovis placed the loot in the middle of his army, and told his men that he would like the vase for himself so that he could return it to the bishop. Clovis’ soldiers, except one, agreed that the vase should be given to the king. This soldier who disagreed made his opinions known by stepping forward and crushing the vase with his battle axe. Furthermore, the soldier cried “Thou shalt receive nothing of this unless a just lot give it to thee.”
St. Remy, Bishop of Rheims, begging of Clovis the restitution of the Sacred Vase taken by the Franks in the Pillage of Soissons. (Public Domain)
The shattered vase was given to the bishop’s messenger, and Clovis is said to have not lost his cool on that occasion, and kept an appearance of calm and patience. Needless to say, the king was not at all satisfied with the soldier’s behavior.
A year later, Clovis got his revenge. During a review of his troops, Clovis recognized the soldier, and reproached him for the poor condition of his arms. The king then seized his battle axe and threw it on the ground. When the soldier bent down to pick his weapon up, the king used his own battle axe to crush the head of the unfortunate man, saying “Thus didst thou to the vase at Soissons.”
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Clovis’ conversion to Christianity can also be found in Gregory of Tours’ account, and may be said to have begun with his marriage to Clotilde. This woman was the daughter of the king of the Burgundians, and was a Christian herself. Clotilde strove to convert her pagan husband to the Christian faith, to no avail. Despite her failures, Clotilde did not give up her intention of converting her husband. Her efforts finally paid off when Clovis was in the midst of a battle with the Alemanni.
Clovis and Clotilde. (Public Domain)
During this battle, Clovis’ army was on the brink of defeat, when he decided to pray to the god of the Christians. In return for victory, Clovis promised to be baptized. Miraculously, the enemy then fled from the field, leaving Clovis victorious. Thus, Clovis became a Christian, and his wife was later venerated as a saint for her role in Clovis’ religious conversion.
The Baptism of Clovis. (Public Domain)
Featured image: Saint Remigius baptizes Clovis, in a painting of ca 1500. Photo source: Public Domain.
By Wu Mingren
Cavendish, R., 2011. Death of Clovis I of the Franks. [Online]
Available at: http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/death-clovis-i-franks
Halsall, P., 1996. Medieval Sourcebook: Gregory of Tours: On Clovis. [Online]
Available at: http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/source/gregtours1.asp
Kurth, G., 1908. Clovis. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04070a.htm
Rickard, J., 2013. Clovis I, king of the Franks, r.481-511. [Online]
Available at: http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_clovis_I.html